When Robert Altman makes a new film, it's always a noteworthy event that
gets the attention of critics and audiences alike: large productions
with huge ensemble casts of major Hollywood movie stars, playing real
people with full, fleshed out characters, each with their own subplots
that intertwine only subtly, until the end when it all finally makes
sense. In Gosford Park, Altman makes only two changes to this formula:
Hollywood stars are replaced by Top British talent that may be unfamiliar
to most American audiences, and a straightforward murder mystery supplants
his traditionally complicated plot line. It is in these changes, however,
where Altman charms his audiences in a new way.
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The story takes place in 1932 at a gathering of aristocrats and their
servants for a hunting weekend at the country estate of Sir William
McCordle. Some time after all the guests are settled in and whose
affairs begin to intertwine, one of them is bumped off. While all the
characters are well fleshed out, it's Mary, played by Kelly Macdonald,
who is the focus of the drama. She's the maid of Maggie Smith's Countess
Constance of Trentham, and is being groomed to follow a path to become
head servant. After the murder takes place, emotions unfold and secrets
from the past are revealed that help the characters - and the audience -
solve the mystery. The drama is even more punctuated when Mary's innocence
and naiveté is lost as she pieces together the deeper scandal, involving
servant-master sexual relations and bastard children.
One of the best aspects of film is how it illustrates that fine line
dividing the master-servant social structures, and how often that line is
crossed, reminding us that life is just a game of costumes and masks,
and we're all the same underneath. While the story was reminiscent
of Agatha Christie's Ten Little Indians, where it's the mystery that
captivates the audience, Altman goes beyond the mystery with Gosford
Park by using the murder as a vehicle to draw attention to the human
condition and class hierarchy.
On the downside, but to no surprise to fans of Altman's work, the
movie is often hard to follow. His style of filmmaking involves
entanglements of characters and subplots that don't appear to have
much to do with one another at first blush, and Gosford Park takes
this to the next level. Here, the murder takes place at the climax of
this confusion, leaving you rather disoriented in the middle of the
2-hour-plus drama. Fortunately, the tone loosens up when a comedy-dim
police inspector basically gets nowhere in his investigation, but the
pieces start coming together through the other characters. The good news
is that it all seems to come together in the end in a way that didn't
require grasping every detail of every scene.
Despite its intricacies and confusing moments, there is so much more
to Gosford Park that makes it interesting and enchanting. While it
is clearly a sophisticated piece of film work with impeccable acting,
directing and design, don't stress about not keeping up with it all the
time. Sit back and take it in, and you'll feel satisfied in the end.
Oh, and think twice before ordering that next cup of tea. Get it yourself.
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